In the United States, the first major step in desegregating schools was achieved 61 years ago, when the Brown v. Board of Education declared any state laws mandating segregation unconstitutional. But today, segregation in many of the country’s schools is on the rise, according to many studies, including one from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, that cite residential segregation and privately operated schools as factors.
Some U.S. cities have adopted policies similar to the Dutch model, enabling more parent choice—but oftentimes these have also led to increased segregation. In San Francisco, for example, parents can rank preferences for their top three public schools, and this has shown to increase segregation.
According to San Francisco Public Press, since 2010, the year before the current school-choice policy went into effect, there has been a “significant rise” in schools that are dominated by one race: In nearly a quarter of the city’s 115 schools, 60 percent or more of the students belong to a single ethnic group, which administrators say makes them “racially isolated.”
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, however, “controlled choice”—similar to what was done in Nijmegen—is applied, and that has reportedly led to better racial and socioeconomic integration than previously seen in the city. Officials incorporate parents’ preferences as much as possible into their school assignments, but this is combined with the district’s attention to creating equitable schools.
But in Amsterdam, this kind of controlled choice is perceived as more restrictive than absolute free choice, says Walraven, and so there is resistance. Indeed, according to Simone Kukenheim, an alderman in Amsterdam who is responsible for “education, youth, diversity and integration,” the city council cannot take action against school segregation because “freedom of choice is too important.”
But without some intervention to make integration a priority in education, Walraven says, segregation will probably continue. “People can say, for instance, ‘I’m a white, well-educated parent, and I would prefer my child to be in a classroom with other children who have well-educated parents,’” he says.
If the government cannot intervene to create more ethnic balance in schools like the Amsterdam’s Avonturijn and Catharina schools, then it is up to the students (and their teachers and parents) to try and persuade local white families to send their children to these schools.
According to Walraven, Avonturijn and Catharina are “good schools that rank in the middle when compared with all other schools. Which means they are very effective schools when you consider some children arrive with very little Dutch words.” And the goal of the “Is this white enough?” campaign, he said, is to send the message that “We are a school in a mixed neighborhood, and white, well-educated parents do not bother to look into how good our school is, or how interesting our programs are. They just look for schools with more white children.”
And, he says, educational segregation is more than just a problem for the two individual schools: It’s a societal issue that needs to be a common priority for policy makers and school board members. “We live in a multicultural society, and we should prepare our children to live in that society, to live together,” he says. “That is primarily what learning in the 21st century is about.”